AUTHOR'S NOTE: I photographed and interviewed Amanda Lepore for this piece, and I adore her and what she has done for the queer community. Nevertheless, I admittedly write from the privileged perspective of a cisgender, gay, white, Southern man, and I'm aware that in attempting to convey my personal experience of witnessing Amanda Lepore perform, this post wades into territory that may be sensitive for some trans persons. My intention is to uplift, but if this piece causes any offense, please let me know in the comments section, or send criticism to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda Lepore and I backstage at The Other Show in Atlanta
Amanda Lepore presides backstage like a demure Buddha, unflappable against the costume jewelry and wigs flying around her. Venture behind the curtain of any drag show and you'll find chaos manifested. Last-minute choreography, ceaselessly applied makeup, constantly changing costumes -- drag queens fly by the seat of their gaffs. And yet, ladylike against the drag-induced mayhem, Amanda Lepore stays perfectly poised. Her plumped ass stands in for a Buddha belly; her eternal smile testifies to the inner peace that silicone and the surgeon's knife have brought her. Somehow, her plasticine semblance is personally perfect: You've never met someone so comfortable in her own skin.
Many folks don't know of Amanda Lepore as a nightlife legend, model, muse, recording artist, and entertainer, but they know her image. She's America's living Barbie doll. Her lips throb with imitation-cherry sex appeal. Her well-padded hips balance out two perfectly sculpted and oversized breasts; Amanda's gauzy wardrobe accentuates her tailor-made tits and ass. She came to prominence in the early '90s as a Club Kid (Joan Rivers loved her); she later became a model for both M.A.C. Cosmetics and David LaChapelle. Even if you don't know her, you've seen her face on some talk show or discussion about the extremes of plastic surgery. She's achieved all of this as a transsexual woman.
I'm a big fan of Amanda.
I met Amanda backstage at The Other Show, a drag show in Atlanta; her guest appearance packed The Jungle Club's cavernous main stage room. Although she's a transsexual woman and not a drag queen, her femininity stands perfectly next to "fishy" drag queens. Amanda outshines the other queens by performing her own original numbers; her stage persona involves much prancing and a breathy, doll-like singing voice. The songs cover subjects dear to Amanda's heart: champagne, her hair, her pussy, etc. Like a porcelain pear on toothpicks, Amanda wobbles during her dance numbers, yet she maintains her gracefulness. When the singing stops, she takes the mic and earnestly thanks the crowd. Her faint voice reveals an inescapable Y-chromosome-tinged resonance. Audiences can hear the transsexual timbre, and we can imagine the man who was once under all that silicone; however, we see her as a woman.
Amanda's "T" -- the truth of her inner self -- can never be fully concealed by silicone or changed by surgery. The fakeness of her body only serves to heighten the truth: that biology calls Amanda a man, but she has blossomed as a woman. Her performances help audiences see past the conflict between body and biology on display. As you see her up on stage, woozily doing her thing, you can't help but be happy for her. Amanda Lepore finds pleasure in the artifice of her body; with her immensely fake tits and voluptuous lips, she proves that her most authentic self can be all ornamentation. What nature did not grant her she has given herself; she's found a steady career, fame, and historical importance as a trans woman.
I expected Amanda to be a bitch of a woman, a horrifying creature born of mass plastic culture. You see her in all these photos -- opulently plumped, pouty, and painted up -- and she seems like a larger-than-life invention. I thought that the woman behind the red lips would surely be a fierce beauty machine, all pretense and sneers. The true Amanda is far, far from that expectation. Amanda appeals to people not because she is a monster but because she is an angel with imitation wings. I have never met anybody so zen-like and appreciative of who she is. Life backstage at a drag show reveals a storm of ego and masculine energy; Amanda brings a surprising sea of calm to the performers. Many gay men fight with nails on (instead of gloves), but Amanda Lepore teaches drag queens to channel feminine fierceness into kindness. I saw several queens strive to be softer, better people after her performance at The Other Show.
Violet Chachki and Amanda
The anxious energy backstage often seeps into me while I photograph the queens. The night I met Amanda Lepore, I spent too much time fumbling around with my camera instead of photographing my extravagant friends. I lost my focus on my art and my rum-and-Coke; I sulked around, not feeling the party, and I couldn't find a good photo. Amanda, sensing my lost creativity and lack of a cocktail, took me back to her dressing room. She immediately offered me tequila shots and conversation. I felt her positive energy bounce off the mirrors in her private space. This dressing room, littered with sequins and a few flimsy outfits, felt like a serene temple. As the tequila wormed its way down my stomach, I saw her as a muse. She stood nearly naked -- save for some feathers and rhinestones -- yet she cultivated a candid tranquility. I heard my artistic voice when she was in the room, and I once again felt at ease with my camera. She offered her body up for a brief photo shoot. (This is where she is at her most natural.) I lost myself in a sea of glitter and paparazzi flashes; Amanda Lepore serves as a lama-like inspiration for queer creativity. She brings good energy to our community.
Violet Chachki and Amanda chitchatting
Several of my gay friends refused to see Amanda Lepore perform, arguing that she is little more than a modern monster and does not represent their queer community. Gay men often look down on transsexuals; trans folk seem too extreme to fit into their vision of mainstream queer acceptance. My own experience of sexual identity is far different from Amanda's, but I know that she is a fellow queer person. Gay men and women have new-found political power and a developing moral authority; we have a moral obligation to fight for trans people, our fellow queers.
Amanda and Brigitte Bidet
Gay people often forget that trans folk have always been at the forefront of the fight for queer equality. The riots at Stonewall were not led by dapper, white gay men, despite our multitudes in today's pride parades. Drag queens, transsexuals, femme men, and homeless queer youth threw the first stones in 1969. The most marginalized, poor people began the queer-rights movement, and despite this, gay men have turned their backs on this segment of their queer community.
The victories at the Supreme Court this summer serve to benefit those in our community who experience the least troubles from their queerness. Gay people have won society's acceptance by presenting an image of our community that is so narrow that it's only a shade away from heteronormative. You would think that all gay people are cisgender, wealthy, highly educated, and beautiful. I know that we don't all wear impeccable designer clothes to our creative-corporate jobs; I know many queer people who don't want to recreate the heteronormative with adorable Chinese babies. I worry, though, that the outside world may not know the truth of the queer community; they think that to be queer is to be fabulous and gay.
Amanda and Miami Royale
To be queer is to be weirder than the average person; you have an experience and viewpoint that marks you as different no matter how much you try to hide. Nature has asked us to pursue a path in life that feels right to us, but one that others will condemn us for. Today's drag queens, young trans kids grasping their identity at an early age, and the rest of us gay people owe our freedom to those who bravely put their face before the public. They were fighters at Stonewall and freaky folks on talk TV, but they gave shape and voice to our community when many were afraid to. Even if the audience on Joan Rivers didn't know her "T," Amanda Lepore offered her body to the media long before our current queer awakening.
And that takes a strong woman.